April 06, 2020

Caribou men get prison for March kidnapping > Defendants vow to stay off drugs upon release

CARIBOU — Tears flowed freely Wednesday in Aroostook County Superior Court as two men, charged with kidnapping another man while they were under the influence of alcohol, pledged to live a drug-free life after their release from prison.

Jeffrey A. Zernicke, 38, and Gerald Brooker Jr., 29, both of Caribou, were sentenced for kidnapping Todd Philbrook of Caribou in May 1997. In addition, Zernicke had been charged with attempted murder in the stabbing of Philbrook during a ride around Caribou that could have been “fatal,” according to District Attorney Neale T. Adams.

On the attempted murder charge, Justice Paul T. Pierson sentenced Zernicke, no stranger to the judge’s court, to 10 years in prison with all but five years suspended, and four years probation. Zernicke received a concurrent sentence for the kidnapping charge.

Brooker was sentenced to eight years in prison with all but four years suspended, and four years probation for the kidnapping charge.

According to court records, the two men kidnapped Philbrook last May and drove around Caribou, with Brooker as the driver. During the altercation, Zernicke stabbed Philbrook twice. Philbrook was able to escape from the car near a potato storage facility.

During Wednesday’s hearing, defense attorneys acknowledged that the kidnapping and subsequent stabbing occurred because Zernicke believed that Philbrook had sexually abused Zernicke’s daughter.

Philbrook is scheduled to go to trial on the abuse charge next month.

Adams recommended both men be sentenced to 10 years in prison, with all but five years suspended, and four years probation. Adams cited Zernicke’s substance abuse problem over the years. The prosecutor noted that Brooker has spent 65 percent of his adult life in prison, not counting time spent on probation.

Brooker choked back sobs as he told the judge that he wished the night of the kidnapping had never happened. Citing his extensive criminal background, Brooker said, “I’ve always wanted to change, but never had the opportunity.”

Speaking on Brooker’s behalf were his new wife and a friend.

While Brooker’s attorney, Jefferson Ashby of Presque Isle, admitted that his client did “some tremendously stupid things that night,” he argued that Brooker should spend only three years in jail.

Zernicke’s attorney, Michael Carpenter of Houlton, a former state attorney general, said he saw in Zernicke a “glimmer of hope” for rehabilitation. Carpenter argued that Zernicke should be sentenced to less than the five years recommended by the district attorney on the attempted murder charge.

“He did it because he believed his little girl has been horribly, horribly harmed,” Carpenter said.

Zernicke’s wife also spoke in support of her husband.

In addressing the judge, Zernicke repeated the phrase “I feel good” several times, referring to his becoming drug-free while in jail. The defendant also admitted full responsibility for what happened that night.

In pronouncing the sentences, Justice Pierson said he was “struck” by the support the men had received from their wives as well as the defendants’ promises to be drug-free.

“I don’t doubt the sincerity of either of you,” Pierson said.

Zernicke has appeared in Pierson’s court numerous times, including once in 1981 when Zernicke robbed a pizza restaurant in Caribou and Pierson was sitting on the District Court bench, the judge recalled.

Pierson cited the men for their “selfish attitudes” as “you killed your brain cells and numbed your minds.”

Brooker also was sentenced on the following lesser charges: aggravated assault, three years in prison; operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, six months; operating after habitual motor vehicle offender revocation, two years.

Zernicke also was sentenced on the following charges: criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon and aggravated assault, three years in prison on each count.

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